Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2004; Page A08
Pentagon adviser Richard N. Perle, a strong advocate of war against Iraq, spoke last weekend at a charity event that U.S. officials say may have had ties to an alleged terrorist group seeking to topple the Iranian government and backed by Saddam Hussein.
The event, attended by more than 3,000 people Saturday at the Washington Convention Center, generated enough concerns within the administration that officials debated whether they had the legal authority to block the event, U.S. officials said yesterday. FBI agents attended it and, as part of a continuing investigation, the Treasury Department on Monday froze the assets of the event's prime organizer, the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia.
Perle, in an interview, said he was unaware of any involvement by the terrorist group, known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and believed he was assisting the victims of the Bam earthquake when he delivered the paid speech.
"All of the proceeds will go to the Red Cross," Perle said. Informed that the Red Cross had announced before the event it would refuse any monies because of the event's "political nature," Perle said: "I was unaware of that." Perle declined to say how much he received.
The Web site for the $35-a-person event, billed as "a night of solidarity with Iran," flashed between references to support for "the Iran earthquake victims" and "a referendum for regime change in Iran." One administration official said that the FBI determined that at least three of the sponsoring organizations were associated with the MEK, while a senior Treasury official said "there were general indications the MEK may have an interest in the event," but it could not yet prove it.
The day before the function, Treasury sent a letter to the Convention Center warning that the "MEK may have an interest in this event or may attempt to use the event to raise funds." But the Treasury official said officials moved cautiously because in general they did not want to chill possible charitable acts. "This is what makes terrorist financing so complex," he said. "You often have a blending of purposes and interests."
No one answered the phone at the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia, and messages seeking comment were not returned.
The MEK, though listed on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997, in the past year has been the subject of an administration tug of war over its status. The group maintained for the past decade thousands of fighters armed with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery in three camps northeast of Baghdad along the Iraq-Iran border. U.S. analysts concluded its primary support came from Hussein's government, despite some financial backing from Iranian expatriates.
Nevertheless, some Pentagon officials considered the MEK as a possible vanguard against the Iranian government, which they viewed as a threat in the region. But in May President Bush ordered the group surrounded and disarmed. Even then, reports persisted of an easy-going relationship between the military and the MEK forces, leading the White House to clarify late last year that the MEK is "part of the global war on terrorism" and its members "are being screened for possible involvement in war crimes, terrorism and other criminal activities."
Jacki Flowers, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said the relief agency had been contacted by the sponsors about receiving funds raised at the event several weeks before it took place. But the Red Cross decided to reject the proceeds once it became aware that the event was "political in nature," specifically the promotion of regime change. She said accepting the funds would "compromise our fundamental principles of neutrality and impartiality."
Perle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, said he was contacted by the Premiere Speakers Bureau in mid-January about giving the keynote speech. He asked for more information about the sponsoring organizations and received a letter saying aid would be coordinated though the Red Cross and describing the event as "solidarity with earthquake victims in Iran and an evening for Iranian Resistance."
The Iranian Resistance is often an alias for the MEK. In August, the State Department shut down the U.S. offices of the political arm of the MEK, known as National Council of Resistance of Iran.
In his speech, Perle said he made the case that the current Iranian government supports terrorism and said the fall of the Soviet empire foreshadowed the fate of the mullahs who he said control Iran. He said the hall was full of families and children and "it did not have an aura of an event with terrorist sponsorship."
Raymond Tanter, a University of Michigan professor who introduced Perle, has long maintained that the MEK does not belong on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. He said MEK was never mentioned in speeches, "but I did hear references to Camp Ashraf," which is where U.S. troops are holding MEK fighters.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.
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